Aimee Stephens had the perfect outfit picked out. She’d had it hanging in her closet for weeks: a dark blue blazer with a matching skirt. The ensemble was smart but sensible, in line with the dress code for women at R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit. The day before she left for vacation, Stephens told her boss she planned on wearing her new clothes when she came back.
The news was timed to another revelation: Stephens is a transgender woman. She handed her employer a letter acknowledging that some people “may have trouble understanding this.”
“In truth, I have had to live with it every day of my life, and even I do not fully understand it myself,” said the letter, which was also addressed to the coworkers she had worked alongside for six years. “As distressing as this is sure to be to my friends and some of my family, I need to do this for myself and my own peace of mind, and to end the agony in my soul.”
Her boss read the letter while seated in the funeral home’s chapel. He folded it up, put it in his pocket, and offered a solemn, one-word response: “Okay.” Before the end of the day, he added five more: “This isn’t going to work.” He fired Stephens, offering three months severance to keep her from suing.
Stephens (pictured above) turned down the offer. Wearing the blazer that was supposed to announce to her womanhood to the world, she instead scheduled a meeting with Jay Kaplan, an attorney the local chapter of the ACLU. Kaplan helped her file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for gender identity discrimination. That complaint has traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear her case on October 8.
“I think [my boss] thought I would take the money and disappear,” Stephens tells NewNowNext. “I guess he’s found out by this point that I’m not that type of person. I’m going to fight for what I believe in.”
The case will be among the most pivotal LGBTQ rights cases ever heard before the Supreme Court. Justices will weigh in as to whether Stephens and other transgender workers are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination on the basis of characteristics like national origin, race, color, religion, and sex.
While gender identity is not included among that list, a March 2018 ruling from the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that “discrimination against employees, either because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes or their transgender and transitioning status, is illegal under Title VII.”
Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes unlawfully discriminated against Aimee Stephens when it fired her after she told her employer that she would begin presenting as a woman because she is transgender.
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 7, 2018
“The unrefuted facts show that the funeral home fired Stephens because she refused to abide by her employer’s stereotypical conception of her sex,” ruled the court in a unanimous 3-0 verdict.
That ruling reversed an earlier decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which argued that continuing to employ Stephens “would impose a substantial burden” on the ability of R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes “to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs” under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In April, the Supreme Court declared it would take up the case along with two others related to anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace: Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. The former concerns skydiving instructor Donald Zarda, who was terminated from his job after he informed a female client prior to a tandem skydive that he was gay. Zarda was killed in 2014 following a fatal skydiving accident, and the case is being pursued on his behalf by his younger sister, Melissa.
Ahead of oral arguments in October, the Trump administration has sided against the LGBTQ complainants. In a brief filed to the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco of the Department of Justice says the definition of “sex” under Title VII solely referred to “biological sex” when the civil rights legislation was enacted 55 years ago.
In too many workplaces around the country, coming out as trans is a fireable offense. But this ruling affirms that that is illegal, setting an important precedent confirming that transgender people are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 7, 2018
But Kaplan, who has continued to represent Stephens in court, says U.S. courts have favored an expansive view of Title VII.
“What Aimee experienced was sex discrimination,” he tells NewNowNext. “She was terminated from her job due to gender stereotypes because she’s a transgender woman. Pretty much all the circuit courts of appeals have uniformly held that transgender people are protected under [Title VII]. This is not a radical concept.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher, especially with right-wing jurists Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the bench. To date, only 21 states have passed inclusive nondiscrimination laws protecting against anti-LGBTQ bias in the workplace. If the conservative-leaning Supreme Court rules against Stephens and Zarda, Kaplan says it could “leave most LGBTQ people in the United States at risk for discrimination and without legal protection against that discrimination.”
While the court may not offer its ruling until June 2020, Stephens says the decision is a long time coming. She was fired from her job six years ago and has battled kidney failure as her case moves through the court system. To pay for her dialysis treatments, Stephens and her wife, Donna, have begun selling their possessions, including their camper and their van.
“I was an ordained minister at one point and I rely on my faith and my relationship with God almighty to see me through each day,” she says. “Were it not for that, I might have given up a long time ago.”
Through it all, Stephens says her wife has continued to stand by her side after 20 years. She and Donna were first loves and childhood sweethearts, sharing a first kiss in the closet at her family’s farmhouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when they were teenagers. The day that Stephens came out to her as transgender, Donna thought she might be cheating on her with another woman. Stephens responded that she was—but not in the way her wife was thinking.
“I figured she would leave me or throw me out and that’s not what happened,” Stephens says. “She made the comment that I was still her best friend and best friends just don’t walk out on each other. I can’t tell you that it was the easiest thing in the world, but we’ve come a lot further than a lot of other people.”
No matter what happens in October or June of next year, Stephens says her wife will still be there holding her hand. As for Stephens, she already knows what she’ll be wearing.